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Drone Wars

By Philip R. Steel
May 29, 2014

We are now living in a brave new world, and not one that even Aldous Huxley could have predicted. Everything we buy, what we say or write, our hobbies, friends and associates are carefully documented. Drones are not the latest engineering breakthrough of the 21st century. They are simply an easy adaptation of a pre-existing contrivance (remote control aircraft). Sophisticated cameras, listening devices, and equipment that can retrieve even the faintest electronic signals have been part of our technological landscape for decades. Yet, drones will be the work-horses of the new age of information and efficiency.

Author Ray Kurzweil predicted such developments in his book, “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology”. Just as the Internet has become as indispensable as electricity and running water to our daily lives, so will the use of drones. Ten years ago, if you wanted to know something about a computer, you asked a young person. Today, we are seeing a shift in computing toward the use of small portable devices. This has resulted in a paradoxical state of computer illiteracy amongst younger generations. As small devices replace traditional computers, the demand for data bandwidth increases exponentially. This is a limited resource and the use of drones to supply greater access to information services will almost certainly become a necessity. The potential for drones to conduct surveillance and collect data is well known. Soon, they will also become the conduit for the flow of that information. Drones are the point where cyberspace intersects with real space and time. They will become fully integrated with government and commercial interests and activities, heralding a new age of efficiency and convenience. Drones are a combination of new information technology with off-the-shelf devices. Models exist that are guaranteed to remain aloft for years at a time. They operate using solar energy and sophisticated batteries. It is unknown how they will react to the impact of weather and degrading performance. They will certainly provide valuable information resources and communications capabilities. However, such delights will also bring many new dangers.

There are many practical obstacles to the use of drones: Is it possible to guarantee an uninterrupted signal to even one of these? What happens when they are ubiquitous in American skies? Within ten years millions of drones could be in the air. The FAA intends to regulate their use and license the operators. How is this possible when they can land anywhere and be flown anonymously? We will have a new breed of criminals. These will operate with impunity. They will deliver drugs without fear. They will survey houses to burglarize or stalk their targets. Drones will bring efficiency to crime and violence. All these and many more considerations fail to mention what happens to privacy, property rights and our way of life when we cede our heritage of freedom to perceived convenience or the apathy that results from a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the momentum of events that no single individual can control. Beginning September, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration will have regulatory control over all the airspace across America starting from the ground level. That means that the federal government will have jurisdiction over everything that exists within or travels through the airspace extending down to the ground level across every square inch of our great nation. This is absolute power and it is a power that will be bought and sold between government, business and private organizations.

The question now is how to control the new age of flying autonomous machines. Can we fight them? Perhaps the many interests using drones will seek profit by going to war against one another. It would not be difficult for competing corporations to disrupt a rival drone using microwave, or other transmissions or to illegally capture data. Today, we see an increasing number of cyber-warfare attacks against our information infrastructure. All the media attention regarding NSA spying ignores one crucial fact: We are not the only country doing this. We have gradually allowed widely integrated information systems to control everything from traffic lights and power grids to airplanes. There is a field of science and mathematics known as CAS (Complex Adaptive Systems). Why does a school of fish or flock of birds behave as one organism? It is because these are leaderless systems that rely upon simple signals to execute complex actions. The application of this type of collective is called “Distributed Computing” in our world. It is already being used in countless human activities such as manufacturing and distribution of goods and services. According to Author Ray Kurzweil, it is not a matter of if, but of when artificial intelligence will exist. Both he and the theory of Complex Adaptive Systems, predict that artificial intelligence will not be created outright but will emerge. Within a few years, drones will have the capability to make decisions without direction by a human master. Who will own these drones? Will they be flown by a benevolent government or corporation to bring good and beneficial services to Mankind or will they be controlled by someone else with a darker intent? You are enjoying the peace of your own back yard. Suddenly, the sky grows black like a biblical plague of locusts. The drones have arrived. At that time, the only answer will be to mindlessly aim your shotgun into the sky and pull the trigger. They will come down like the Passenger Pigeons of the early 20th century.

© 2014 Phillip R. Steel